‘Game Change’: A New Standard for VP

Now that Game Change, Jay Roach’s 2012 political drama, has enjoyed a release on DVD, it deserves reappraisal as a pedagogical tool for professors of American politics and history.

Instead of inviting cheap laughs and indulging in belittlement, the film asks its audience for careful character study. The three main players in the 2008 presidential campaign storyline, Steve Schmidt, John McCain, and Sarah Palin, emerge as flawed but determined and intriguing figures. Game Change concerns the downfall of one of the weakest running mates in presidential campaign history, but in fact the film uplifts the office of the vice president. The film honors the nobility of public service. Palin’s political failure evidences the historic uptick in public expectations for the vice presidency—a significant, new American political tradition.

The American vice presidency’s first officeholders welcomed its duties with contempt. John Adams claimed that “the vice presidency is the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” In Adams’ day, the Constitution ascribed no duties for the vice president, and none who served in the position expanded their office.

Ambitious politicians of the early republic earned considerably more prestige serving as Secretary of State, perhaps due to the urgency of foreign policy for the fledgling country. Five future presidents led the State Department—then known as the Foreign Affairs Department—during its first forty years: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Martin Van Buren.

As the White House modernized and expanded, the vice presidency’s reputation continued to languish. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, one of the first activist presidents, asked John Nance Garner to be his running mate in 1932. Garner famously quipped that the vice presidency was “not worth a bucket of warm piss.”

Not until Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign did the vice presidency earn some respect among politicians. Clinton, eager to build a ticket reflecting the best new leaders in the American South, invited Tennessee Senator Al Gore to be his running mate. Gore called the ticket a “new generation of leadership.” He enjoyed a strong role on the campaign trail and his activism continued in the Clinton White House.

As vice president, Gore led one of the administration’s main initiatives—the National Partnership for Reinventing Government. The program, inspired by government theorist David Osborne, became a defining legacy of the Clinton years. Brookings Institution scholar Donald Kettl said of the Partnership: “No executive branch reform in the twentieth century – indeed, perhaps in the Constitution’s 210 years – has enjoyed such high-level attention over such a broad range of activities for such a long period of time.” Gore finished his term as one of the most successful vice presidents in history, respected by both parties as a partner in policy and a senior counselor to the president.

Subsequent presidents from both parties have followed the Clinton-Gore model, choosing veteran voices for the vice presidency. Guffaws greeted George W. Bush’s pick for a running mate, Dick Cheney; for the first time in history, the size of the VP’s resume trebled the president’s. In Vice President Joe Biden, Barack Obama found an independent, ambitious, active partner. Biden’s speech at the 2012 Democratic Convention poeticized this partnership. His current work on gun violence continues it.

Prominent governors across America have also embraced a new partnership ethos when selecting lieutenants. Lawton Chiles, who served as Florida’s governor from 1990 to 1998, made his lieutenant governor Buddy MacKay a strong player in his administration. After the Chiles-MacKay self-proclaimed “Dream Team” swept into office, MacKay became the chief bureaucratic troubleshooter, empowered by his governor to help save Miami from bankruptcy. “Until Buddy came along, I’d never met a happy lieutenant governor,” said state Republican Party Chairman Tom Slade. The Chiles-MacKay approach even inspired the Clinton-Gore model nationally.

Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, now concluding his second term, has long attested to his lieutenant governor’s sterling credentials and counsel. Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, now a candidate for governor himself, has busied himself for years with a full slate of supporting duties. His office’s activism is unprecedented in Maryland politics. Game Change chronicles this rise in power among political deputies. It recognizes a new American political tradition: for the past twenty years since Al Gore’s vice presidency, successful presidential running mates have met a high standard of experience, intelligence, and mental fitness. Routine has become common law. As charismatic as she was, Sarah Palin flouted this law and suffered a backlash.

In Game Change, Sarah Palin’s oft-castigated ineptitude yields lessons for historians. The film builds its characters from the inside out—even villains. Before we see Sarah Palin’s rank ignorance of world geography, the Federal Reserve System, and British history, we see her as a family woman with a heart for the disabled. Before the film depicts Palin’s nervous breakdown on the campaign trail, it questions the qualifications of Barack Obama, too. Fairness was clearly a priority for the filmmakers.

In one of the film’s most dramatic scenes, Steve Schmidt, the senior campaign strategist on the 2008 McCain-Palin campaign, shuts down Palin’s attempt to offer her own concession speech. Schmidt, played with gusto by Woody Harrelson, cites historical precedent: “Governor, this country has just elected the first African American President in the history of its existence. And it is the concession speech that will legitimize his succession as Commander in Chief. It is a serious and solemn occasion and John McCain, and only John McCain, will be giving this sacred speech. This is how it has been done in every presidential election since the dawn of the Republic and you, Sarah Palin, will not change the importance of this proud American tradition.” Schmidt thus wins the short contest of wills.

According to Game Change, Palin has lost and will continue to lose because of her rogue behavior—because of her obliviousness to history. Her defeat heralds a new, higher standard for presidential running mates. As media pundit Campbell Brown remarks in the film, “In fairness, probably most people can’t name a Supreme Court case. But most people are not campaigning to be Vice-President.”